Pastor John van Sloten of Marda Loop Church in Calgary had been thinking about, in his view, the theology behind wearing a mask.
His basic premise was that if Jesus, who was God, took on a human body to mask his Godness for the sake of others, then Christians should also cover up their faces during a pandemic.
So van Sloten penned a column for a local newspaper and made it the subject of one of his sermons.
“I thought it was a pretty convincing theological argument,” van Sloten said. “But people just went nuts with it.”
Soon, the Facebook page for Marda Loop Church was flooded with angry commenters. One told van Sloten that he couldn’t possibly be a pastor with such beliefs. Another said he should be ashamed for “posting such nonsense.”
One commenter even posted a meme of Jesus displaying his middle finger to the reader.
“I thought that was creative,” van Sloten said. “A lot of it was repeating … the conspiracy theories that the whole masking thing is made up, that you’re drinking the Kool-Aid like the rest of liberal society.”
Van Sloten said he has received criticism, hate mail and even protests outside his church over the years, and has mostly ignored instances that seemed like trolling.
But he said he’s also read about the advent of the baseless conspiracy theory QAnon in American churches, and feels that churches in Canada should be carefully tracking its possible journey north.
“The Christian church has always been exposed to heresies and incorrect thinking historically from the get-go,” van Sloten said. “Heresies come and heresies go, and this is the heresy du jour. And I think we ought to treat it like that.”
An American conspiracy comes north
The QAnon conspiracy theory originated in 2017 on the message board 4chan after a user identified as “Q” claimed they had insider information on the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Through a series of anonymous posts, Q propagated the conspiracy that Trump was battling against a child-trafficking ring that included “deep state” government officials, prominent Democrats and members of Hollywood.
Followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory include members from both secular and religious groups, and aren’t made up specifically of those people who participate in the Christian faith.
Though QAnon may have begun as a distinctly American conspiracy, its tentacles have since been attached to governments and notable individuals around the world.
“Prime Minister [Justin Trudeau] has been mentioned in Q drops since the start of QAnon,” said Marc-André Argentino, a PhD candidate at Concordia University who studies QAnon. “We have some significant influencers [based in Canada].
“Amazing Polly [a QAnon influencer based in Ontario] was at the root of the Wayfair conspiracy theory. It’s not like Canada is just taking the American aspect, but they’re adapting it to its own context.”
Typical QAnon conspiracies connected to Canada involve the belief that Trudeau is one of the “deep state elites” who need to be removed from office to “awaken and liberate” the country.
Growth among QAnon adherents within secular and religious communities is steady, and underpinned by different motivations, Argentino said.
But he said there could be an easy path for the religious community to understand apocalyptic language in the political context, making it potentially easier for members to accept QAnon.
“[Religions and conspiracy theories] have this function where they permit the development of symbolic resources that enable people to define and address the problem of evil,” he said. “So whether you want to know why something is happening, whether you’re blessed or cursed — God or the devil — it’s the same thing with QAnon.
“This conspiracy theory is providing a mainstream narrative for things like a pandemic or war or child trafficking … It’s just a natural pathway for a lot of evangelicals in the U.S., especially considering how evangelicalism is closely linked to American politics.”
‘How could you believe this?’
When the pandemic started, Jessica DiSabatino, lead pastor at Calgary’s Journey Church, felt confident in keeping to one of her church’s “high values”: that not all members shared the same views, and that was OK.
But as lockdown dragged on and the church lost its face-to-face contact, she noticed some things that worried her.
On social media, DiSabatino watched as the debunked Plandemic video was shared and watched hundreds of times by people in her congregation. Inevitably, DiSabatino began hearing of QAnon from people around her, and began to read more about it.
“There is like a religious fervour about it,” she said. “The more I read about it, it seems like a replacement religion, where everything has a reason. And I think people want to feel like they’re [connected to] the inner workings of something, particularly when we don’t have a lot of power.”
Seeing posts emerge on social media about QAnon from her congregation, DiSabatino soon felt herself struck by a new feeling — was this going to cause fractures within her church community? Was all the work she had done being undone by this conspiracy?
DiSabatino could feel herself getting angry. As friends in her life began voicing their openness to QAnon, she said she thought to herself, “How could you believe this? What is wrong with you?”
“These are some of my friends who I love. And what I’ve had to say to them, in the end, is this cannot define our friendship.”
Looking for ‘the big story’
DiSabatino soon realized her anger toward what she viewed as someone’s irrational beliefs would drive a further wedge between them — and could be an impediment to uncovering what might be motivating those beliefs.
“I don’t think I can say nothing,” she said. “But I also think it’s a very personal thing, so I’m not going to get up and preach a message about why I think QAnon is crazy.
“Partly, because I think different people come to conspiracy theories for different reasons. I think sometimes, you’ve got hurt that is unimaginable in your life.”
People of faith are [looking] for a big story that explains why things are the way they are.– John van Sloten, pastor of Marda Loop Church in Calgary
Van Sloten said conspiracy theories and church can often fill the same void, because they’re trading on the same faith and desire for an authoritative voice — something exacerbated in a time of turmoil and anxiety.
“People of faith are also looking for a big story that explains why things are the way they are,” he said. “So again, these desires — these good desires, in all of us, I believe, as a theologian — they’re ultimately meant to be directed to a grand narrator who can be trusted, who is authoritative.
“They’re being co-opted by conspiracy theories, by people who want control by making cognitive shortcuts and just getting an answer because they’ve got to get an answer soon.”
Conspiracists function almost as prophets
Colin Toffelmire, associate professor of Old Testament at Ambrose University College in Calgary, says there has been a historical vulnerability to conspiracy thinking in some versions of evangelicalism or fundamentalist Christianity.
“I think that’s related to the history of how some Christians in North America have thought about history and science, especially,” Toffelmire said. “For example, there’s this long-standing objection in evangelical subculture to really well-accepted scientific theories, like the theory of evolution by natural selection.”
Those objections — centred in versions of Christianity that believe that everything in the Bible is exactly historical and scientifically accurate — could make certain individuals suspicious of mainstream ideas in science and history, Toffelmire said.
“Some of that is kind of hard-baked into some versions of North American evangelical subculture,” he said. “And so that is, I think, almost like an entry point. That suspicion of authority becomes an entry point for very strange conspiracy theories, like the QAnon conspiracy theory.”
Joel Thiessen, professor of sociology at Ambrose, said though churches should be aware of the rise of QAnon, he wasn’t sure that it was yet a prominent concern in Canada.
But taking an example from the United States, he said it appears that more conservative Christian groups tend to gravitate toward conspiracy, potentially because they may feel they are becoming marginalized in secular society.
“[They feel] they are losing positions of power that conservative religious groups have historically had, particularly in the U.S., to a lesser extent in Canada,” Thiessen said. “There’s an emerging sense among some conservative groups that they have lost power in governments, in education, in media and so forth.”
Thiessen said that those in conservative religious groups who gravitate toward a conspiracy still represent a small minority of churchgoers. But those who end up believing the conspiracy, Thiessen said, may typically be drawn to it for many of the same reasons others in society are.
“You have potentially charismatic or polarizing figures, who almost function like prophets within these sub-narratives within society,” Thiessen said. “I think because of physically distanced communities and congregations not gathering together as frequently, people are perhaps not even watching their own online religious services. That means they aren’t being socialized.
“It actually makes this a ripe time for such groups to actually capitalize on those opportunities. No doubt we’re seeing those things unfold before our very eyes.”